Why Rotterdam (still) needs a LGBTQ+ student association

Rotterdam Pride: Fabian Lips

It wasn’t exactly a festive launch, since both board and members were stuck at home during lockdown, but last year marked the official inauguration of the LGBTQ+ student association: Erasmus Pride. Chaired by student Fabian Lips, it managed to grow from an informal network to an official and acknowledged part of the university in just a few months. Right before this year’s Rotterdam Pride, we met with Fabian to hear his story and discuss why his association is relevant today.

A quick glance of Fabian’s CV raises the question where he found time to launch a student association. In less than seven years,  Fabian graduates with a whopping three bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.

For him, it was never really about time, but opportunity: “I was studying for seven years, I am already a member of another association, I’ve done committees, boards and I’ve been chair there. I was on campus for such a long time that I had established a network, in the University Council, the Board of Directors, everyone you need for an association. I had the knowledge and skillset to make Erasmus Pride into an actual association, and I had gathered people around me who wanted to do that with me.”

"I thought my sexual orientation would set me back ten steps"

Associations in Rotterdam

The project led by Fabian was the official establishment of the association after it had already existed as an informal network since 2011. The slow speed is surprising, as many other Dutch student cities have had LGBTQ+ student associations for many years. What took so long?

“There was a gay youth association in Rotterdam before, Apollo, but they ceased to exist a long time ago. I think they had issues with their subsidies, or something like that.” In 2006, it had looked like Apollo was about to lose its subsidies, and they subsequently faced problems with their housing. But it was in 2014 that the association was finally abandoned. “No one really picked up where they left off.” says Fabian. Now, once again, Rotterdam has its own LGBTQ+ student association.

It begs one cheeky question: does Rotterdam really need a LGBTQ+ student organisation? Can’t students just join something else?

“They can,” Fabian replies, “but in some associations, there’s a culture that is not favourable for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, strong macho culture, hazing, fraternities, sororities, or thinking in two genders.

“I’ve heard from people who leave associations because they feel unsafe, or people who don’t sign up because of the existing prejudices.” When we ask Fabian whether an LGBTQ+ student association could perhaps even increase polarization, Fabian replies calmly. “It’s a thread of thought I’ve heard more often: if you don’t want to be treated differently, why start a club for people who are different? You must realise that in other associations, even when we’re accepted, we’re always a minority. Now, in our own ‘club,’ we are a majority. That makes it so much safer and easier for people to join. We focus on a safe space for the community, and that can be complementary to the existing culture of associations. You can be a member of any association, and also a member of Erasmus Pride.”

Het bestuur van Erasmus Pride na oprichting van de vereniging

Straight passing

Now Erasmus Pride has united LGBTQ+ students and alumni, they want to use their position to stimulate diversity in other student associations. “The ultimate goal of Erasmus Pride is to connect LGBTQ+ students with all associations and student life. I hope that someday, Erasmus Pride will be a ‘normal’ association, without the extra focus on the LGBTQ+ element. For now, that is an utopian dream.” In the seven years that Fabian was a member of Het Rotterdamsch Studenten Gezelschap – where he, among others, chaired an LGBTQ+ sub-association – he did see tolerance towards the community grow, but also saw that there’s a lot left to do.

“The president of Roze Kameraden was threatened with arson, [Dutch gay and lesbian organisation] COC was besmirched and vandalized – and in Amsterdam they tried to burn down an apartment building because of a rainbow flag. It is still very important for us to have our own association.”

"Imagine having a religious flatmate that is intolerant of everything you do, and freaks out if you wear something colourful"

The establishment of Erasmus Pride during the Covid-19 pandemic is not coincidental. The university’s student wellbeing monitor revealed that while all students are having a hard time, the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students is even more worrisome. Fabian believes one of the main reasons is their situation at home. “It is often not ideal. Studying and working from home is far from enjoyable – but imagine having a religious flatmate that is intolerant of everything you do, and freaks out if you wear something colourful. Or maybe you’re still living with your parents, who don’t accept your sexual orientation, or maybe you haven’t told them yet. That makes this period extra tough.”

For these problems, the association founded Erasmus Pride Pals: a matching system that connected LGBTQ+ people together to go out for a walk, or meet to talk about their situation. Fabian reflects proudly: “That is what really motivates you. You can reach out to people who actually need it.”

Erasmus Pride walk in 2017

Masculine banking

Fabian’s graduation also marks the ends of his stint as chair of Erasmus Pride. Today, he works as a Junior Advisor of Regulations & Policies at ABN AMRO and he works in the office on the Zuidas, which is known to locals as the ‘monkey rock’, reflecting its masculine culture. How did Fabian end up there?

“I always knew I wanted to work for a bank, but I was quickly afraid of not being accepted in this world. That is why I worked so hard, graduated from five programmes, and did all these extracurricular activities. I thought that my sexual orientation would set me back ten steps. First, they would see ‘gay Fabian’, and only then they would pay attention to everything I did.” This pressure affected Fabian to a point where he burned out. Today, he still has to deal with a lot of anxiety from that period.

Nevertheless, he found the power to persevere: “I am using it as my strength now, instead of my weakness. This is what I feel strongly about, Erasmus Pride makes me really proud of myself. More so than all of my degrees. I’ve left a home for Fabians that are starting with their studies today. That is so valuable to me.”

"I’ve left a home for Fabians that are starting with their studies today"

Also, on the Zuidas, he did not find the macho culture he feared. Quite the contrary: “I want to be expressive about my sexuality and who I am, and in my current job I can. They even asked me if I wanted to help them develop their D&I policy here. That gives me a feeling of safety.”

For now, however, Fabian is busy enough doing just his job. For now, he emphasizes. “My thesis supervisor told me about a Russian saying, something like ‘if you have the feeling that you have too much to do, do one more thing.’ She didn’t understand that saying until she met me.”

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